The study of the interaction of discrete political powers when what takes place within those powers is considered irrelevant is called political realism. Though it can be applied widely it finds its supreme expression in the study of the relations between states.
Political realism has a particular view of an unchanging human nature as inherently self-interested and egoistic. Apart from this insight you can `black box’ individuals as you need know no more about them in order to understand the dynamics of the relations between them. Of course in society there are all sorts of influences and systems that mitigate against such a rudimentary understanding but in the sphere of international relations where anarchy, lack of government, reigns supreme society cannot emerge and the egoistic actors with the will to survive must help themselves in an interminable game of cat and mouse or even dog eat dog. In later manifestations anarchy is considered a behaviour-imposing system preventing the individual actors from ever becoming `socialised’ as some idealists insist they can be.
Millennia of observation and data collecting have allowed realism to identify a number of rules about, for instance, power balancing between states. They have observed that under the systemic pressure of anarchy states eventually balance power between themselves. That when those power-balancing arrangements are multi-polar the five or six major powers confront each other directly but that when those arrangements are bi-polar the two main powers fight only proxy wars if for no other reason than that the fewer variables in a bi-polar system makes power balancing easier. There is considerably less room for misunderstanding.
Within the system of anarchy that rules over whatever discreet, interacting powers we are looking at, in this case states, we can see then that the power-balancing arrangements are constantly changing, dissolving and reforming, but the one thing that never changes is the metaphysical system of anarchy in which these changes occur. Realism, and this is where it gets its name, always advises statesmen that you do not mess with this reality without dire consequences.
Take George W Bush and his efforts to spread democracy around the world after the end of the Cold War. His hubristic idealism designed to remake the world in America’s image resulted in catastrophe. America got bogged down in Iraq having squandered a considerable amount of blood and treasure resulting in the rise of the very oppositional forces whose emergence Bush had hoped to prevent in the first place. Not even the mighty US, the greatest power the world has ever seen, fresh from its victory in the Cold War, could overcome systemic anarchy.
Of course, realism does no explain the constantly changing landscape within the never-changing system. It is brushed over as uninteresting. States that are revisionist of the world order arise to challenge the status quo powers presumably, but this is never stated, because they no longer feel they can survive if things stay the same. Perhaps it is not stated because it would make the radical idealists that the realists rail against realists too and the conservative realists who want to maintain the status quo idealists of a sort.
Nevertheless, six thousands years of experience makes realism difficult to argue with which is just as well for it as its primary function as a political ideology is to prove that change, real change, is impossible.
Whilst no system can exist without change it is equally true that no system has ever been found that can exist for ever. The changes taking place within it are not simply a never ending rearrangement of the parts but a dynamic and developing interaction between them. The closed system of energy production known as The Sun has been pumping out heat and light for millions of years and will go on doing so for millions more but we know that once the hydrogen has all been used up The Sun will be no more. In fact the 6,000 years of state interaction is itself only a tiny fraction of the 200,000 years that homo sapiens have been roaming the earth and it was Marx who some 150 years ago who foresaw the end of this system by pointing out the dynamics of the base on which it sat.
States arose, he said, when society split into classes. This gave a huge impetus to the development and continued development of the productive capacity of human kind. It also established the ever changing patterns of interstate relations. Realism sees only these patterns and not the impetus behind it which it discards and renders irrelevant. So whilst it perfectly describes the rules of this system after it has been established and before it dies it cannot tell us how it came into being or how it will come to an end. The development of the productive forces which ensures that the changes within the system are not simply circular but directional is ignored.
Capitalism, for Marx, whilst by far the most dynamic form of class society was also its final form. It would take the means of production to previously unconsidered levels of productivity and scale. It would respect no borders and demolish all Chinese walls as he put it before succumbing to its own contradictions and the limits that the nation state on which it first arose would finally place upon it.
Capitalism has created an almost fully integrated global economy but it has not been able to transcend the systemic anarchy that moderates the behaviour of states. Returning to George W Bush we can see that his attempt to unify the post-Cold War world under US-hegemony and remake it in its image was pure idealism in that he believed America could overcome the constraints of anarchy or reality as the realists would have it. But in another way Bush and the so-called neo-Conservatives he led were being profoundly realistic in that they were aware that if America did not impose its political hegemony over the planet globalisation itself was in danger.
And so it proved to be. Since the Iraq fiasco the world is being returned to a condition of multi-polarity. The mighty American imperialist bourgeoisie has, for the time being, rejected the idealism of the neo-Cons and under Obama adopted a policy actually designed to allow the emergence of rival powers that it hopes can share the burden of policing the world whilst it of course remains the first amongst equals.
This new-found realism on the part of the American ruling classes is of course proving to be the crassest idealism. Multi-polarity is indeed emerging but with a backdrop of capitalist disintegration the last thing it is likely to result in is a stable balance of power.
The world economy has outgrown the egoistic states and the anarchic system in which they swim or, as it has been previously called, the Prison House of Nations. Globalisation has seen to that. But there can be no going back. To be a realist now is to be the most cynical idealist. The return to multi-polarity now foreshadows permanent global conflagration amongst the great powers as they divide and re-divide a constantly shrinking pie. It portends not a new epoch of peace or a new Golden Age for capitalism but a New Dark Ages from which humanity will never escape.
The system of discreet political entities that wish to survive existing in a condition of anarchy that this wish creates can no longer change. The economic system will not allow it to go into reverse nor, in a globalised world, can it find new forms. And a system that can no longer change is doomed. Today’s `realists’ are not arguing that there can be no escape from the system but that there must be.
There is only one force with both the inclination and the wherewithal to achieve this transcendence or sublation: the international proletariat. Wresting control of their respective nations from the venal capitalist class they will establish states that do not wish to survive except in opposition to those that do. States that will dissolve as the basis for their existence, class divisions, disappear. Anarchy will be replaced by co-operation and co-development and eventually a completely integrated world economy unencumbered by political divisions operated on the basis of reason and the principles of sustainability and the satisfaction of human need undistorted by capitalist alienation.